File photo: Chas Hundley

Following a Tuesday afternoon work session where Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington said she would push for a closure of indoor dining in Washington County, the chair of Washington County’s board of commissioners has floated the idea of allowing indoor dining for vaccinated diners only. 

In an email obtained by this publication, sent Wednesday afternoon by Harrington to the mayors of most cities in Washington County, her colleagues on the board of commissioners and some county staff, Harrington laid out a possible change to her initial idea: Require proof of vaccination for all indoor dining. Those unvaccinated or unwilling to provide proof of vaccination would be left with outdoor dining, takeout, or delivery. 

Harrington said that the idea was an addition to the original proposal to shut indoor dining down for four weeks, calling it a “variation on a theme” strategy. “I am sending you this email to simply inform you of this variation on a theme strategy which I am working to develop for our consideration and action,” Harrington said. 

Harrington said that between research, staff putting together legislation, and coming up with an enforcement plan, either proposal would likely not be voted on before the board’s next Tuesday meeting on August 24, likely quashing the specter of a special meeting being called to address the issue before then. 

One form of the dining restriction idea was raised by Washington County District 4 Commissioner Jerry Willey during Tuesday’s work session. Willey said that the current statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces could be strengthened by giving restaurants the ability to restrict indoor dining to those who are vaccinated. 

“Let’s be clear, businesses have the power to check vaccination status already,” Harrington said in the email. “But no one wants to be the bad guy.”

Harrington added a dig at two of her fellow board members who did not appear to fully support her initial proposal. 

“At least 3 of us said we are ready to step forward to help improve hospital capacity,” Harrington said, likely referring to Willey’s earlier opposition to closing indoor dining and Commissioner Roy Rogers, who did not appear to throw his full support behind the idea on Tuesday. 

In neighboring Multnomah County, Willamette Week reported that Harrington's counterpart, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, pushed back against the idea of her county enacting a plan to require proof of vaccination on Tuesday.

“For one local government in a metro region to quickly implement a widespread adult vaccine mandate when we currently have no enforcement mechanism or administrative structure in place would be incredibly challenging,” Kafoury said, according to Willamette Week. “That said, we are looking at all the potential ways we can increase vaccination and blunt this surge.”

Harrington said that she was still getting more information on how to handle the question of those younger than 12, who are not currently eligible for any vaccine. “I have to get better informed on that,” Harrington said. 

“Lots of us are ‘put out’ about being punished by new proposed restrictions when we have done the right thing, to get vaccinated and wearing masks,” Harrington said. “So let’s treat everyone equally and not allow the unvaccinated to do harm to our hospital capacity, to our recovering economy or to our kids.”

Harrington laid the blame for Oregon’s hospital capacity woes at the feet of the unvaccinated. 

“This variation strategy may not be as effective,” Harrington said. “It is more focused on those causing the surge and the hospital capacity problem. It may also alleviate the burden of business mitigation that we said we wanted in our strategy discussion yesterday.” 

The majority of the current patients with COVID-19 in hospitals are unvaccinated, according to the Oregon Health Authority, though the Delta variant appears to be causing more “breakthrough” cases of those fully vaccinated. 

“With the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, Oregon communities with low vaccination rates are seeing high infection and test positivity rates, which are driving a spike in hospitalizations,” the OHA said in an email Wednesday.

Writing to the mayors, Harrington acknowledged that any dining ban or vaccination status enforcement would impact businesses in the respective mayors’ cities, and that county staff had experience in the arena of enforcement, thanks to the previous system of indoor capacity limits under Governor Brown’s risk framework. Harrington also said that the county would work on timing and outreach to give restaurants enough lead time to reduce the financial impact on their businesses if one of the proposals were passed.

“Lots of folks living their lives may not be aware of this hospital crisis, and I can’t fault them for that and NOT wanting to pay attention to the news,” she wrote. 

According to the Oregon Health Authority, as of Wednesday, 850 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Oregon, an increase of 12 from the prior day, with 224 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (ICU) beds in Oregon, two more than the previous day.